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23 Oct 2008 : Column 156WH—continued

I am keen for my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to respond on a particular improvement that we must make. We do very well when visitors are in the building, but often it takes ages for them to get in. I was about to write formally on the issue, but did not do so because of this timely debate. I have received two significant complaints in the last two weeks about the time it takes to get people from the beginning of a queue into the
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building. Yesterday, pensioners who came to lobby told me that they were in the queue for an hour. Some were quite elderly and relatively disabled. A couple of weeks ago, people coming to a 6 o’clock meeting to which I was invited arrived before the meeting, but were unable to get through the system until quarter to 7. They observed that other visitors who were here to look at things and had no time commitment were moved past them.

We need a system like those in airports that can identify people who have an appointment at a particular time and ensure that they are processed quickly. That cannot be beyond the wit of our system. I ask my hon. Friend to raise that issue and for somebody to write to me and other hon. Members present to confirm that that will be done and that we will have a more user-friendly and efficient system for processing people. I understand that there are peak times, but I do not think that we manage this as well as we should. If that is people’s first experience, it will take them a long time to recover, however good the experience is when they get through the door.

On current matters, I repeat the comment that is often made that we do not handle child care as well as we should. The issue with the crèche is ongoing and goes back before my hon. Friend’s time; perhaps he will touch on it. Colleagues in my party have asked me to raise it and I am happy to do so.

I have been asked to raise two issues on access to information. First, there is a strong feeling that we should allow clips of parliamentary debates to be used on YouTube and elsewhere. This issue is like the record of votes. That should be possible in a modern age. I am not bothered about the technical rules on the issue. Such websites are where people look for things and it would be good for Parliament if clips could be put on them.

Secondly, I understand that something we cannot do is make Bills available on the website. There is a campaign called “Free our Bills! The Nice Polite Campaign to Gently Encourage Parliament to Publish Bills in a 21st Century Way, Please. Now.” Apparently, it is not possible to get hold of a Bill and download it easily. I have not tried to do that, but others would find it useful. If that can be done, can it be done as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend pointed out that in the future the big issue may be whether we can stay in the building. The House authorities appear to be dealing with that in the right way in doing a survey. As a London MP who is in and out of the building every week of the year, I know that a huge amount of work is done in summer. However, I can see the logic of the argument that there might be a better and more cost-efficient outcome if all the work were done in one go without having to stop and start several times. That would be the logical outcome and there are available options.

Mr. Vara: May I add another query that I hope the hon. Member for North Devon will enlighten us on? When the work is carried out will there be disruption to traffic because of the need to install cabling and utilities under the road? That would have a far greater impact on the area than just affecting the work of Members of Parliament, their staff and the House authorities.

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Simon Hughes: That is a highly relevant consideration. It would be appealing and attractive to move to York, and I would have no objection to that in principle. I thought that the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) would argue that we should go to Lancaster, or at least to his side of the Pennines. Clearly that is unrealistic if we are just talking about moving out of this building while the people in the surrounding buildings stay.

There are two obvious places where negotiated residence might be possible. One is the conference centre over the road and the other is the buildings of Church house, where Parliament has gone before. That would give the Church an opportunity to move out of London and go around the country for its Synod meetings, which might be a good thing for its mission.

A linked question was put to me by a colleague whose background is in the construction industry. Apparently, the procedures in the House for placing building contracts have changed. I was asked to ask what are the forms of contract in general terms. Do we have a big contract that is left to somebody else to subcontract or do we manage the subcontracts ourselves? What are the regular processes to ensure that delay and overspend are spotted early in a contract and that we do not get to the stage that we did with the new entrance, which caused us some grief?

Environmental issues are rightly seen as important. There is significant detail on them in the report. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon has probably answered more questions on such issues in the last year than on anything else. I strongly reinforce the plea for an end to bottled water and for the use of tap water. That is a campaign that I have been running for 25 years in public life. I understand that, by and large, the quality of bottled water is not as good. If I was not in this place, I would be in trouble with bottled water companies. We must move on this issue and I hope that my hon. Friend can help with that.

I saw something in London city hall that I have been urging: on the lifts is a little sticker asking, “Is your journey really necessary?” Every day I tell off young, fit and healthy members of staff for using the lift to go one, two or three floors. Can we have a campaign that discourages people from using lifts when they do not need to do so and that encourages the use of stairs? It is an abuse of our energy and environment that people use lifts so lazily and carelessly. I am keen that we do something about that.

The report is good on the places we source our food from. The meat is bought in Britain, which is excellent, particularly given the current climate. I do not mean that in a xenophobic way. I welcome the idea that we have Spanish and Italian weeks in the restaurants. However, can we make every effort to ensure that we buy British where possible for our materials and foodstuffs? We have a duty to the workers who elect us to do that wherever we can.

Finally, over the past year, we have seen significant changes in the structure of the building and the structure of how we run ourselves, as my hon. Friend said. Those are not things that the outside world notices, but they were carefully thought through. I believe that there are now nine departments, which is a considered response.

The outward, visible sign of the House authorities has traditionally been the Serjeant at Arms. In the last year, we have said goodbye to one Serjeant at Arms and
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welcomed the first female to the role. I thank the outgoing Serjeant at Arms and repeat the warm welcome to Jill Pay. She is very much appreciated, as are her staff. It is important that we have confidence in the people we work most closely with, however much they have authority over us in various guises and on various occasions.

It is a privilege to be elected to this place. It is a privilege to serve people from here. It is in their interests that we take this debate and these issues seriously. We have a duty to be as efficient as we can with our time and with their money. It is they who pay for this place and for us all to be here. We therefore owe it to ourselves and to them to ensure that we do this job properly. We must be able to report back that we are as careful as we can be with the public resource and as diligent as we can be in doing our jobs properly.

3.49 pm

Nick Harvey: With the leave of the House, I thank you, Miss Begg, the three Front Benchers who are here and the two Back Benchers who came in and made interventions.

I undertook to go back to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on a couple of points and did my best to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), except for his remark about the Members’ Dining Room. I entirely take his point that there are times in the week when the Members’ Dining Room is used less heavily than others, but, overall, it has a much healthier bottom line than used to be the case. Although it might look, operationally, to be on the same footing on Wednesday and Thursday nights as on Monday and Tuesday nights, that is not the case if one scratches below the surface a bit. Catering in there remains a huge logistical headache, because staffing levels might be set for a Monday or Tuesday night, and supplies of food might be ordered on the assumption that there will be a full House, but then business might collapse and there might be nothing. On the other hand, one might proceed on the basis that nothing very serious is coming up, but then a political issue might kick off and suddenly all three parties keep people here all evening and freezers have to be delved into. It is not an easy operation to run, but I repeat that the bottom line is healthier than it was.

Mr. Vara: I have noticed that outside organisations come in and use the facilities here. That must be taken on board. I, for one, have attended Saturday evening dinners in Dining Rooms, at which the room has been entirely full, and we have all attended receptions between dining hours. They add to the financial equation.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. All that certainly helps the bottom line.

I shall devote a few minutes to some of the points that the three Members who are still present have raised. I thank the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for his supportive remarks about the improvements to the House service and for his broad endorsement of our approach to the feasibility study into the big mechanical engineering project. I shall address his points on that now. As far as I know, it should not involve any major works in terms of the supply of services to the Palace, as it is overwhelmingly about the infrastructure within it. However, when we
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modernise and improve our infrastructure, if there is anything in the pipeline, by way of outside enhancements, it would make sense to do those things at the same time. In terms of the overall logistical headache, however, I do not think that that is a particularly huge element.

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am convinced that the Management Board takes ethnic employment very seriously. It is true that we do much better on those numbers at the lower levels in the House, as he has said, but I am absolutely confident that the board shares his, my and other Members’ desire to see that spread all the way up, and that, without forcing the issue, it is determined that we will get there.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) talked about disabled employment. I was rather surprised to hear that the last time he looked we were not meeting quotas, because I had thought, when I answered questions on this issue, that we were well ahead on recognised national numbers. I will check that and come back to him.

May I reassure the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire that the commitment to greener procurement has not been kicked into the long grass? We are now procuring all our electricity from renewable sources, as the Deputy Leader of the House has pointed out, and we are doing many other things to ensure that we have greener procurement policies.

I had a great deal sympathy for the points that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made about the pricing structures in the Debate restaurant, and have fallen foul of them myself on occasion. I shall report it up the food chain, as it were, and I shall try to get the matter looked at. However, I have found that a little bit of haggling at the till can prove quite productive if one goes about it in the right way.

The hon. Gentleman kindly said that there have been improvements to the website but highlighted the need for further improvements to navigation. I shall ensure that those remarks also go back to those responsible. He also commented on people getting wet while they queue to come into the building. It makes sense for me to address, with that issue, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the time that that takes.

The new Cromwell Green entrance was built to speed up considerably the process of getting people through what is an enhanced security procedure into the building, and there are more channels open at any one time than there were before. That has been quite a major undertaking, and achieving a further exponential improvement of the sort that my hon. Friend has called for will probably require another investment on that sort of scale to bring people through somewhere else. I do not think that it is possible to get people through the Cromwell Green entrance any faster, but they are coming through much faster than they were under the previous systems.

My hon. Friend acknowledged that there will be bulges when big lobbies are on, and I am afraid that unless we are to reduce the level of security, it will be hard to do very much, in an instant way, about that. He asked about having fast and slow tracks for people who do or do not have timed appointments, but that system is already operating. That is the purpose of the barrier that goes down the ramp—one side is for those who are queuing speculatively to come in, and the fast track is
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for those with timed appointments. If people with timed appointments have gone into the wrong queue, I suggest that there has been some miscommunication at the top of the ramp. Perhaps the situation has not been fully explained to them, or perhaps they have come during a bulge, when the fast and slow tracks are not operating quite as they should.

Simon Hughes: I pursue this matter only because I am clear that everyone in the case that I have mentioned did the right thing. Let me quote from the letter. The writer said that

It goes on:

Clearly, that was not being done properly, and there needs to be a queue for those with appointments and a queue for those who are coming for a general visit. That needs to be rigorously, carefully and politely managed.

Nick Harvey: I am disappointed to hear what my hon. Friend has said. He has read from a letter that clearly contains a considered report of what happened. If he has not already done so—I am sure that he has—I strongly urge him to feed that into the House authority so that it can consider the matter. He said that the visitor arrived at 5.55 pm, but if, by any chance, they were planning to attend something at 6 pm, that is far too late to be arriving. I advise anyone who comes to see me to allow at least 20 minutes to get through security, and I would strongly recommend that organisers of all events, and all hon. Members who are expecting visitors, advise people coming here to allow that sort of time. It simply would not be possible, in any system that I can imagine, for people to get through in five minutes. I am disappointed if the twin-track approach is not working as well as it should, but I reassure my hon. Friend that it is there.

On the issue of people getting wet, I am afraid that they do. It would have been nice to build a ramp with a cover over it, but, thinking back to the amazing headaches that we had with the heritage lobby about building it, I shudder to think how much more trouble we would have had if we had attempted to put a cover over it. As I said in my opening remarks, it is a world heritage site and a grade I listed building, so I do not think it feasible to provide a cover for the queue.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his kind remarks about the House service, and reinforce what he said about our appreciation being due to staff at all levels and every function within the House. He was quite right to pay tribute to them. The Deputy Leader of the House rightly points out the changing role of MPs, how different that role is from years ago and how
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much greater the constituency element is than would have been the case in the past. I repeat that it is very much recognised that information and communications technology services to constituency offices need a great deal of further improvement. He will also draw some comfort from the fact that the House endorsed the idea of central procurement of constituency offices from 2010, and the work to bring that about is being taken forward now. However, it is of course only a few years ago that the Senior Salaries Review Body in its report legitimised, recognised and flagged up the need for resources to go into constituency offices at all, and we have come some way since then in quite a short time.

Simon Hughes: I am very keen that the new constituency arrangements come into operation as soon as possible, and I am grateful for the collaboration of the staff who have said that they are happy to help. I want to put on record my repeated keenness that that work moves as quickly as possible, because for many of us it would be really helpful to have the new regime, which will link the space that we have to the money available in a way that is fair across the House and to everybody. If my hon. Friend can encourage the greatest expedition of that work, it would be really appreciated.

Nick Harvey: I repeat my enthusiasm to see the system trialled, piloted, to have problems smoothed out and to have it functioning in time for the intake of new Members after the general election, because that will be important.

The Deputy Leader of the House also rightly pointed out the importance of our outreach work. He paid tribute to the new visitor attendants, as other Members did, and he made some very positive remarks about the expanded education service. As we have all noted, there are more and more people coming through into the House. Those arrangements are very successful, and I thank all those staff who are involved; perhaps I did not thank them as fully as I should have at the beginning of the debate.

The Deputy Leader of the House also made some complimentary remarks about the website. It has improved but, as all Members have said, websites cannot stand still—we must constantly seek to make further improvements to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey also paid tribute to the improvement in the services over the 25 years that he has been a Member. I am sure that it is quite true that there has been improvement, and all of us can see that.

My hon. Friend also asked me about the cleaning dispute. There is a limit to what I can say about that. The House is not a party to the dispute, which was raised by the trade unions with the new contractor, but I will say as much as I helpfully can. A new contractor was appointed from 1 September to take over the cleaning contracts. In response to a request from the House, the new contract was devised on the basis that far more cleaning would take place during the night than had been the case in the past. The second factor was that the new contractor’s own preference was to employ full-time employees rather than part-time employees.

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